Technology aids communication about storms, but it's 'not a panacea'

May 26, 2011 

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Andrew Rein had a familiar routine whenever a severe storm threatened his childhood home of Birmingham, Ala.

He would huddle in a closet under the stairs and hope the TV stayed on so he could keep connected with the outside world.

"We were kind of wondering what the heck is going on out there," said Rein, now vice president of sales and marketing at Hargray, the local telecommunications provider.

If put in the same situation today, Rein might have considerably more options.

Depending on the severity of the storm, he could watch live TV on a cellphone or track developments via text message, media websites or social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Technology has provided many more avenues for people to communicate amid disaster since 1999, the last time residents in Rein's new home, South Carolina's Lowcountry, evacuated for a hurricane.

Those technologies can be immensely helpful -- and perhaps even save lives -- but Lowcountry residents should not rely too heavily on a cellphone or any other electronic gadget to get them information they need, several people involved in planning for disasters said this week.

Derrec Becker, public information officer for the S.C. Emergency Management Division, suggested residents follow the lead of the state, which takes an "all-of-the above approach."

In a disaster, state officials have access to cellphones, land lines, the Internet and satellites, he said. In case those methods fail, they also have a bank of ham radios and a crew of volunteers to operate them.

Residents should have similar backup plans, Becker said. That means you might want to stock a weather radio that can be hand-cranked in case power goes out and cellphone service isn't available.

Whatever you do, don't assume a cellphone alone will be sufficient, experts say.

Cellular providers maintain generators and other systems in an effort to ensure they can power their networks during an emergency. AT&T, for example, recently announced it can pack a small cell site into a suitcase so first responders can extend connectivity up to half a mile in places where disaster has knocked out communication channels.

Even so, landline phones are likely to be more effective in the event of a power outage, Rein said.

"Cellphones are good, but like most other electronic pieces of equipment, they're going to have their downfalls," said Ron Morales, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Charleston.

Even if cellular service is available, networks could be jammed or your phone could exhaust its battery, Morales said.

Even though the new technology isn't failsafe, emergency managers are increasingly adopting it as another means to share their messages.

Weather service officials in Charleston monitor storm-impact reports on Twitter, send e-mail alerts and recently won permission to start a local Facebook page for the 20 counties they cover in Georgia and South Carolina.

Almost 2,000 people follow the state emergency division on Facebook, and almost as many do the same on Twitter, Becker said. The division also posts videos such as public service announcements on YouTube.

Becker called social media "the single biggest gamechanger" in the arena of disaster response since the telephone.

Many local governments are also using e-mail and social networks to notify residents about emergencies.

"It's not a panacea, but I think because cell phones are ubiquitous, it's going to give another option for saving people's lives," said Doug Ferguson, a professor of communication at the College of Charleston.

William Winn, Beaufort County's public safety director, said county officials will use all available measures to communicate with residents in a disaster, but he stressed it remains up to residents to act on the information they receive through any medium.

"People are going to do what they're going to do based on the threat they perceive to their family," Winn said.

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